Thursday, January 12, 2012

Shepherds and the art of cat-herding; three brief points

I only have time for a brief(ish) post today, but I didn't want to let this post by Msgr. Pope, linked to by Dr. Peters in my comment boxes, pass by without remark:

Cardinal George in his recent ad limina visit to Rome summed up the difficulty the bishops face here in America in the following way:

The Church’s mission is threatened internally by divisions which paralyze her ability to act forcefully and decisively.

On the left, the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and the nature of the ordained priesthood and that the Church herself are publicly opposed, as are the bishops who preach and defend these teachings.

On the right, the Church’s teachings might be accepted. But the bishops who do not govern exactly and to the last detail in the way expected, are publicly opposed.

The Church is thus an arena of ideological warfare, rather than a way of discipleship, shepherded by bishops. And so, the Church’s ability to evangelize is diminished. Cardinal Francis George, May 28 2011 Ad Limina Visit.

In other words, trying to lead Catholics is like herding cats. And our descent into ideology stabs unity in the heart and gravely wounds our ability to impact our culture in any real effective and unified way. Consider that there are as many as 70 million Catholics in the U.S. Were we really together on any one topic, we would be a force to reckoned with. But we are not, and are thus largely ineffective as a force for positive change.

And it is always easy to say “It’s that other slob who is responsible for the disunity.” But as Cardinal George notes, the bishop’s aren’t getting much support from any sector of the Church. [All emphases in original--E.M.]

As I said above, I don't have time to delve into this in quite the depth that I'd like to, but I do want to make just a few remarks:

1. I find it disturbing that Cdl. George would conflate actual disobedience to the Magisterium with quite possibly legitimate criticism of prudential matters including Church governance. To put it in the most extreme example possible, there is a huge difference between a congregation defying its pastor and "voting" to "ordain" a woman, and a congregation complaining to the bishop because the pastor refused to listen to highly qualified lay people, hired substandard contractors to build a parish hall, and then openly chastised those who pointed out that almost immediately after the construction the flooring was already failing and certain other construction issues were arising--for their "disobedience" in criticizing the pastor (that second situation actually happened at a parish I'm aware of). One's legitimate obedience to and respect for one's pastor does not require one to suspend disbelief and pretend that one's pastor is a skilled general contractor when that is obviously not the case! And to see these sorts of complaints as exactly the same thing as dissent about abortion, homosexual acts, contraception etc. is--to me--part of the problem.

2. Respect is a two-way street, and it is highly disrespectful of the laity to refer to them as "cats" who are resisting being "herded." We are, in a perfectly legitimate Biblical metaphor the depths of which have yet to be fully plumbed, sheep in need of shepherds--but the truth is that every bishop should see his flock as individual children of God with priceless immortal souls every one of which his excellency will be called to account before God in his individual judgment one day. I once had a wonderful pastor who would say this of his parish--that he was responsible for our souls, and that if by his actions or negligence he was complicit in either failing to see that we were falling away from God and His Church, or actively driving us away from them, he would tremble to face our Lord on the day of his own death. How inspiring such a statement is, especially when, as it was in my pastor's case, it is backed up by a life of exemplary personal habits of prayer and sacrifice and constant service! How much respect could be restored for the bishops of America if each of them would truly take this same sentiment to heart!

3. The biggest barrier to the kind of automatic obedience, trust, and respect Catholics ought to have for our bishops is, perhaps, the one thing that both should be addressed and is nearly impossible to address: our bishops are strangers to us, for the most part. Sure, in some smaller dioceses, or paradoxically in some larger archdioceses where several auxiliary bishops serve, Catholics may find their bishops approachable, willing and able to spend time in conversation, happy to be involved in the lives of the people in their flocks, and eager to reply to legitimate concerns when these arise. I have, alas, never lived in such a diocese. At this point, I'm truly grateful that my bishop writes a blog (as a priest once said when I admitted to reading it, "It's a great way to know if the bishop is in town or not!") because I can at least read his thoughts and ideas on matters. But if I needed to bring up a problem, I would just look on the diocesan website for the appropriate chancery official and send the letter directly to him or her; there might not be any greater chance of anything happening, but I'd at least be saving the bishop's secretary the task of figuring out who should receive my letter, since the only person who never would, under most circumstances, is the bishop himself. This is not--let me be clear!--the bishop's fault. I can't imagine how he manages to do the half of what he does. It is simply impossible for him to be present to everyone in the diocese, to be father and friend to each Catholic in this large flock. And I imagine this is true for most Catholics in America--yet without any sort of personal relationship to go on, how easy it is to fall into attitudes of suspicion and distrust on both sides! Is it surprising that some bishops cringe when Mr. Average Lay Person approaches, sure that he's going to receive an angry tirade of complaints none of which are really important, only to be deeply surprised and even shocked when Mr. Average Lay Person, the parish finance committee chair, perhaps, is polite, respectful, and hates (and this one is totally hypothetical--I want to be clear) that he has the unpleasant duty of sharing with the bishop the hotel receipts his pastor and the parish secretary racked up on their shared vacation (which, even if platonic, violates the diocese's strict policy against such things)?

I'm not sure what the solutions here are. Prayer, of course. But then?


Siarlys Jenkins said...

"Consider that there are as many as 70 million Catholics in the U.S. Were we really together on any one topic, we would be a force to reckoned with. But we are not, and are thus largely ineffective as a force for positive change."

Or negative change. Getting any large group of people to all move in lockstep is either like herding cats, or it is like running a military or a prison, depending on your choice of method.

The balance Erin outlines is a good one, and if it were consistently practiced I'd worry a lot less about the hierarchy trying to subvert our republican form of government. But there are two fault lines (at least).

First, 70 million people don't move in lockstep on ANYTHING, no matter what common belief system they adhere to.

Second, those with authority to reprimand a flock of subordinates for disobedience, much less heresy, tend to abuse that authority and extend the definition of disobedience for their own convenience.

The structural weakness is held in common by the Vatican and the Communist Party. The most doctrinaire communists I have ever known were raised in devout Catholic households, and freely mixed references to "indoctrination" learned in one context, as justification in another.

Discipline, to be truly effective, is based on voluntary adherence, genuine agreement, and leadership that earns respect for its ability to lead the way to desired goals better than the unshepherded laity could achieve on its own.

Erin exemplifies voluntary adherence, reserving the right to constructive criticism. Christianity has so many branches (as do Islam and Buddhism) because the larger the flock, the less genuine unity on all points there will be. That's also why the Reformation happened. And leadership... if those in office claim divine right, they tend not to earn the respect they need to function effectively.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Erin, before I begin, I should tell you that Msgr. Pope's boss in D.C., Absp. Donald Wuerl, said publicly that he will not implement Canon 215 regarding elected officials and abortion. Indeed, I don't believe JPII ever denied the Eucharist to members of the Italian parliament who supported legalized abortion. So Msgr. Pope's credibility about obedience is, shall we say, suspect.

Now that that's done...

Msgr. Pope's and Cdl. George's comments are nothing but self-serving clericalism, which results from centuries of an attitude of entitlement, institutional arrogance, isolation from the laity and making the laity a separate (and lower) class from the clergy.

You have every right to be disturbed by Cdl. George's comments. They not only show a lack of logic but also an attitude that the bishops are beyond question on any prudential matters, that blind assent is the only way! Not even St. Paul demanded this when he presented the Gospel throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

You also have a right to be disturbed because, as St. Peter himself wrote in his first letter, believers are "holy priests," (1 Peter 2: 5), a "chosen people" and "royal priests" (1 Peter 2: 9). Christ conferred that status on us. Yes, we sin and stumble but we can go to Him for mercy and forgiveness. No church leader has the right to demean the laity as "cats"!

Being disconnected from the bishop is not of God and dangerously leads to becoming a member of a Church of one.

You used this same tactic with me, Erin. Remember? Msgr. Pope's statement is such a reach. It equates legitimate questioning of a bishop's expertise on a prudential issue with outright disobedience. It's designed to stifle legitimate discussion, let alone dissent, and cause the individual doing the questioning to feel guilty even for contemplating such questioning!

It seems to me that Msgr. Pope is another one of those ambitious careerists who will mouth all the right things to get ahead, but not really care about the substance of his life (see first paragraph). So what credibility does he have?

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Erin, this is why I no longer consider myself Catholic. I would not allow my children (of which I have none) to be raised in a faith whose leaders demand obsequious obeseience, to the point where they must applaud naked emperors and ignore how naked they are. I will not allow my own mind to become enslaved to arrogant clerics who think they can improve on God, or put excessive burdens on the faithful that they won't do a thing to allieviate.

This is also why I believe Catholicism, ultimately, is doomed. It is an old wineskin trying to contort itself to new wine -- the intelligence of the laity and the availability of near-instantaneous communications -- with ever-increasing failure. True, Satan will not prevail. But Christ's committment to that proposition might mean the destruction of all those entities -- including, and especially, churches -- that place their own agendas, wealth, influence and institutional loyalty over Him.

More and more, it appears that the bishops and their toadies (like Msgr. Pope) perform a great impression of the first-century Pharisees. Had the bishops lived 2,000 years ago, they likely would have come to the same conclusions about Christ.

Sal said...

No solutions, sorry.
But it all goes back to what you posted on below: the restoration of trust after The Scandal. Which is going to take a long time. Longer than the bishops would like to admit, even among those of us of goodwill.

It might sound corny, but we send our bishop a spiritual bouquet every once in a while, just to let him know we appreciate him, and are grateful for finally being a parish.

Lynette said...


Had the bishops lived 2,000 years ago, they likely would have come to the same conclusions about Christ.

Dostoevsky beat you to it, I'm afraid. Read the parable of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov. It's one of my favorites.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Siarlys, I think your analogy to Communism has merit, in this sense: I think Vatican II had the same effect on the Catholic Church as Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika did on the Soviet Union. In both cases, the leadership tried to form a more open institution. In both cases, the response was far more intense than the leaders realized or could control.

The basic difference is that Marxism lost credibility with the Soviet people decades prior to Gorbachev. Cynicism about the system was rampant and helped bring it down. For the most part, Catholics have no such cynicism (yet) about their own ideological underpinnings. For now, they can compartmentalize Church theology from ecclesiastical structure. However, since one ultimately relies on the other (at least according to the bishops, whose main goal is to preserve the structural status quo), that's an inherently dishonest bargain.

When Catholics make the connection -- and when Catholics fully realize how pervasively corrupt their leadership really is -- then Pope Benedict will get his wish of a smaller Church, though certainly not in the way he hoped or imagined.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

"Absp. Donald Wuerl, said publicly that he will not implement Canon 215 regarding elected officials and abortion."

Good for him. If any leader of any church attempts to blackmail members of the church based on the manner in which they represent their constituents while in elective public office, that church leader commits a felony (in my opinion, possibly even treason) and should be treated accordingly.

Thankfully, church leaders, whatever their heated rhetoric, are generally sensible enough not to indulge in such direct assaults on republican government.

To be perfectly clear: Erin, or Joseph, as individual citizens, are free to vote their conscience in the exercise of the secret ballot. A candidate for public office is free to announce openly, before the votes are cast "As a Catholic I will take any opportunity to vote for legislation imposing life sentences on doctors who perform abortions." But, if a candidate has been elected, any attempt to coerce the manner in which they discharge their REPRESENTATIVE duties, is a felony. That includes withholding communion based on how they vote on legislation.

Red Cardigan said...

Siarlys, you know I disagree with you on this. What if a not-yet-Catholic politician, due to be baptized at Easter, made public his support for the legalization of infanticide? Would the decision by the pastor of his would-be parish not to baptize him be coercion of the sort you describe? Or is it only on abortion that politicians can insist on forcing the Church to give them the sacraments even if they have, by their actions, placed themselves in a state of grave sin and thus outside the state in which they can lawfully receive those sacraments?

We have religious freedom in this country for a reason. A Catholic politician is free to vote for the legalized prostitution of eight-year-olds, and the Church is free to excommunicate him for it. And that's how it should be.

Red Cardigan said...

Joseph, if you want me to publish your latest, please re-send it without the slurs against Msgr. Pope, who I have every reason to believe to be a good man and an exemplary priest. I will, and do, publish things you write about the Church which I strongly disagree with, but I won't let you attack a specific priest--or, indeed, any specific human being--in such terms when you have no proof that such terms are even remotely justified.

freddy said...


A spiritual bouquet is not at all corny. It is a beautiful and valuable way to connect with your bishop through the love of Christ. I've made a habit of praying for my bishop -- maybe I should let him know!

You know, cats really are a step up from sheep. They're way smarter, smell better, easier to care for and lots prettier! Maybe it's a compliment! ;)

Will Duquette said...

Erin, Regarding #1, I doubt criticism about bungled renovations is what Cdl. George was talking about. What I do see on the conservative end of the spectrum is our tendency to second-guess our bishops when we don't have the whole story. Especially, we want them to kick butt and take names when politicians claim to be devout Catholics while flouting the teachings of the Church. But as you note, a bishop has the responsibility of leading stray members of the flock back into the fold--and most of that simply can't be visible to us. Instead we assume the worst and talk trash. The same applies to liturgical abuses.

An example from my own experience. Here in Los Angeles it has been customary to consecrate the precious blood in the carafe, and then pour it into the chalices. I've read on-line that you're supposed to do it the other way around, and I wondered why it was allowed.

Turns out, when I looked into it, that it was because our bishop said that it was to be done that way; that he had the right to so direct; and that he'd gotten clearance from the Vatican to so direct.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

That is a close call Erin. You have a good deal of logic and principal on your side. As long as your argument can be framed purely in terms of Freedom of Association, I agree.

For example, if someone who is NOT running for office announces "I think torture is perfectly acceptable in the interest of national security," OR, by the same token, "I think abortion is perfectly acceptable," there is no question that any church has a right to tell that individual "You are not one of us, because who and what we are is defined by rejecting those positions as irretrievably evil."

What really gets my patriotic small-r republican blood pressure up is when a bishop writes to a seated state legislator, "You had an opportunity to advance the church's agenda and failed to do so." I may have a preposition wrong, here and there, or even have substituted a synonym, but that is what Bishop Burke wrote to at least one Wisconsin legislator.

I insist, legislators are NOT elected to represent their church, or to advance their church's agenda. They are elected to represent the voters who elected them, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, agnostic, etc. etc. etc. The bishop may not do that, any more than he may kidnap the legislator's child, hold a gun to the kid's head, and announce "Vote as we tell you if you want to see your kid alive again."

The bishop may say, "As a bishop, I advise every Catholic not to vote for this person ever again, because they are willing to leave laws in place that allow women to obtain abortions..." as long as the secret ballot is not trifled with. If a priest asks in confession "And whom did you vote for last Tuesday, my child," Father goes to prison.

Anonymous said...

I think the dioceses who have worked on this, it is evident as they lay the ground for a true community spirit. I know of one diocese like that. If I am compared to cats, that is fine. We all have a tendency to get "catty", claws out, etc. The one thing that bothers me is those who complain but do nothing to resolve the issues that divide. When we have complaints and bring to their attention things that truly need to be dealt with, we hope we are listened to and the matter is resolved. It is evident that some do and some don't do that. If we were to apply the same scrutiny to our own households, it would be the same - we reap what we sew and what we do not address. BUT, respect for Bishops should not be hard and we should show respect to everyone, even if we deem them "non deserving". Trust is a different thing and so is obedience. It would depend on past experience and also what we were being asked to do. I don't think that is a bad thing nor if that is what is being asked. If it is, well, it can be chucked out properly with the trash. So what else to do? Work on ourselves in addition to praying. Or that is my plan.

Kevin O'Brien said...


How discouraging these comments are. And these are the ones you're publishing!

Siarlys, the question is public support of grave evil. Canon law requires that figures who give public support to grave evil, if they persist in this after private correction from their bishops, are to be denied communion. It's not a question of politics. Cardinal Burke is heroically right on this, and very lonely in his heroism.

Joseph, is it just "you and Jesus"? What do you suppose is The Body of Christ? Granted, there's plenty to hate in the heirarcy, but then again there's plenty to hate in your neighbor.

The fact that two commenters above have taken over the combox on this issue shows that anti-clericalism is alive and well. And I say this as one who fully expects two-thirds of U.S. bishops to apostasize when the pressure gets turned up.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Kevin O'Brien, if some pagan revival sect announced that certain grave evils were to designate a person as a human sacrifice, set forth in a well-written canon, would that justify the resulting homicide? No, because laws of general application that happen to conflict with the dictates of one's religion are not barred by the First Amendment.

What a church chooses to deem "great evil" MAY NOT interfere with representative republican government, period. Canon law is of no consideration, has no standing, and no force, if it infringes on matters outside the church.

While Erin made an erudite and moving argument from the perspective of freedom of association and free exercise of religion, that ceases to be the primary consideration when it crosses the line into manipulation and coercion of OUR elected government, all of ours, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, Santeria, etc.

You are justifying every argument advanced by the Know-Nothing Party against Catholic immigration and citizenship: that Catholics cannot be trusted with the franchise or public office in an elective republic; they will take orders from Rome and subvert democracy.

If all Catholics acted as you suggest, this would be TRUE. You make Catholics running for elective office sound like communists "boring from within" to advance their own agenda. If you were right, no non-Catholic could ever vote for a Catholic for public office. Fortunately, most of your fellow Catholics are well-assimilated Americans.

Further, an individual of the Roman Catholic faith, elected by a majority of voters of various faiths in their district, might well take the position, "I oppose abortion, but I disagree with the legislative program of the bishops; I do not believe that criminal statutes are a necessary, effective, or appropriate means to end abortion." That makes AT LEAST as much sense as Susan Peterson telling a priest that his homily is in conflict with the teachings of the church!